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Penny Saewert's daughters, Emma, left, and Sydnie are shown with their dog, Molly. The Saewerts had to have Molly put down last summer. Photo courtesy of Amy Warrey

How parents can help children cope with death of a pet

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WEST FARGO - For the past year, 13-year-old McKenna Robertson has been dealing with the impending loss of her dog, Piper.

The 8-year-old Shih Tzu, who sleeps on McKenna's bed at night and snuggles with her on the couch, has a tumor on his colon. Veterinarians say he doesn't have long to live.

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When McKenna, of West Fargo, found out her dog only had a few months to live, she would cry whenever she saw him, she said. It's been a year since the Robertsons found Piper's tumor, and McKenna now accepts that he likely won't live much longer.

"At first it's hard, but you kind of get used to the fact that he's going to die," she said.

Counselors say when it comes to the death of a pet, children need to be able to grieve and process their feelings. Parents shouldn't minimize their emotions or their attachment to their pets. Even something like the death of a fish can be hard on kids.

McKenna's mom, Maronda Robertson, is a counselor who specializes in grief and loss issues at Minnesota State Community & Technical College. She said dealing with the loss of a pet can be an opportunity to teach children how to deal with loss in general.

"Unfortunately, a lot of the time parents want to protect their children from pain, and instead of letting them be sad they will try to get them another pet right away to attempt to make them forget about the other pet," she said. "Although it is not necessarily bad to get another pet, it is important to allow them to grieve the loss of their beloved pet."

Getting another pet is fine, as long as it's not an emergency reaction to losing the first one, Robertson said.

It's good for kids to be sad and learn how to work through those feelings. Bottling them up can lead to problems with anger and depression, she said.

"There are all kinds of things that we need to be prepared for in life, and it's an opportunity to teach them how to be emotionally mature and cope," Robertson said.

Funerals can be a good way to help kids cope, she said. Humor can also be a healthy way to deal with loss as long as it doesn't mask the grief, Robertson said.

Casselton Veterinary Service has an online memorial for clients to share stories about their pets with other pet owners.

"I think that helps a lot of people with closure," said Lisa Trader, Casselton Veterinary Service veterinary technician.

The animal hospital also sends clients a poem with their pet's paw print on it after euthanizing an animal, Trader said.

"We know how special the bond is between a pet owner and a pet," she said.

Penny Saewert received one of the paw print poems after they had their dog, Molly, euthanized.

Molly was almost 8 years old when the Saewerts found out the St. Bernard had cancer. She had to be euthanized about a week later.

"We cried our eyes out that day," said Saewert, of rural Casselton.

She said it was especially hard to watch her daughters, 14-year-old Sydnie and 10-year-old Emma, go through the loss.

"The girls understood," she said. "They didn't want to see her go, but they didn't want her suffering either."

Molly was a calm, sweet dog who was very protective of the girls and had a strong connection with them, Saewert said.

The girls had never lost anyone close to them before, and her oldest daughter said she never thought it would be so hard to lose a pet, Saewert said.

But each day after Molly's death was a little bit easier, and then they decided to get a puppy, which seemed to help, Saewert said.

"They were very excited to have her and play with her," Saewert said.

Kelli Gast, director of early intervention services for Solutions Behavioral Healthcare Professionals in Moorhead, said children at different stages process loss differently.

Younger kids grieve the loss of a playmate when a pet dies, she said.

Preschoolers and toddlers might act out or they might just accept the loss and move on.

Elementary-aged kids spend more time processing what happened, why it happened and where the pet went, Gast said.

Older kids might withdraw for a while, but they tend to process the loss of a pet the same as an adult might. They can understand what happened and know that all pets die eventually, she said.

While kids will react differently to loss, if they don't seem to be doing any better within two to four weeks or if their grief interferes with how they function on a daily basis, Gast said parents might want to consider seeking professional help.

Parents should be honest and give as many facts as they can because kids will fill in the blanks themselves if they don't have answers, Gast said.

"A lot of times their ideas are much harder and scarier than what's reality," she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526.

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